What exactly is crowdfunding?

This morning I took part in a panel at the Thompson Reuters 2014 Online Financial Services Symposium.

Moderated by Suzanne Barlyn of Thomson Reuters, the topic was "disruptive alternatives," including crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending.

Bjkz7mTIQAEPKAkThe audience is made up of financial services professionals who manage online trading and other retail financial services on a massive scale. As I blog this, a panel is getting into the nitty-gritty of trade execution. A later panel will talk about user interface design and new ways to engage both self-directed and managed investors (and how the categories are blurring).

So I hope that lends context. The panel I took part in was to discuss new classes of investing that might be around the bend for the mainstream online financial services industry.

6a01156e3d83cb970c01a3fcde8425970b-580wiSomething big that I learned in the course of the morning is that peer-to-peer lending is something not far off into the future, like Title III non-accredited crowdfunding, but a phenomenon already here and even embraced by policy makers at the Federal Reserve. Ron Suber (pictured) of Prosper, a San Francisco based marketplace matching consumer borrowers with lenders, captured everyone's imagination with his vision of disintermediating banks in the consumer credit space. He calls it an investable asset class, and emphasized the pains taken to qualify would-be borrowers (eighty percent of applicants are turned down, he said).

Closer to the world with which I am more familiar - equity financing provided by accredited investors to startups - Michael Raneri of Venovate, another San Francisco-based company, described a sweet spot for online activity that is post-seed stage (later than AngelList or FundersClub), but still very much emerging growth. His company is part broker, part part portal, part VC fund (or maybe fully all three). He does not appear to like the term "crowdfunding," however, for the connotations it brings of Title III.

BjlGgPNIUAAnRkwTim Baker, Global Head of Content Strategy at Thomson Reuters, reminded all that angel and venture financing is relatively small - only about $25 billion a year. He cited historical precedents which suggest to him that, if crowdfunding on the equity side is going to take off, it will take 5 years or so to catch on.

If Tim is right, I imagine that, in that span of time, people will get comfortable with the idea that some kind of clearinghouse will standardize accreditation. When that happens, the 506(b)/506(c) distinction - so very existentially critical in this moment of transition - won't be as big a deal. 

So debt crowdfunding at a retail level is here already. And accredited crowdfunding (Tito Singh of Thomson Reuters terms it "elite crowdfunding") is finding its footings and will likely impact angel investing as we know it. What about equity crowdfunding for everyone?

I know there are people in the nascent non-accredited crowdfunding industry, who see non-accredited crowdfunding of startups as a asset class. That is a mistake. In fact, part of why I like the state crowdfunding alternatives (alternatives to JOBS Act Title III) is that they seem to take more of the approach that people want to back small companies for reasons that are as compelling or more compelling than the prospect of financial return.

Picture credits: first two, Lauren Young of Thomson Reuters (from her tweet stream); third is picture I took from the dais of Suzanne Barlyn before she took the podium.


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